Basho’s New Year Haiku

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

Year after year, the monkey wears the monkey’s mask

Year after year, a monkey dresses up in a monkey face

Toshi doshi ya
saru ni kisetaru
saru no men

年々や     猿に着せたる      猿の面

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

1693 – 23 months and counting

Toshi doshi, year after year. Though he could not know it when he wrote this haiku, Matsuo Basho had but 23 months to live.

It was New Year’s, 1693. Matsuo Basho was now 49 years of age and no doubt, looking back on what he had and had not accomplished.Basho was living in Edo, he had one final trip to make. Written on the first day of the first lunar month, we may rightly call this “Basho’s New Year’s Haiku”.

Of this haiku Basho said, “I jotted down this poem because I was saddened to see people stuck where they were, struggling the same way year and year.”

Saru no men, 猿の面, could easily be translated as monkey face or mask. The phrase is phonetically similar to the idiomatic saru mane, 猿真似, “monkey imitation,” “monkey see monkey do”.

Noh Theater

It is perhaps helpful but not necessary to know that mask were used in traditional Noh Theater. A monkey mask was one used for someone acting foolishly.

It is also helpful to be aware of Sarugaku, 猿楽, “monkey music”. This theater, popular during the 11th to 14th centuries, consisted mostly of acrobatics, juggling, and pantomime, sometimes combined with drum dancing, later including word play reminiscent of Basho’s own haiku.

banana-leaves

Sleet

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857

On everyone
It sleets, you know, even the inn
Becomes cold

On everyone
It sleets, you know, even the inn
Is freezing

Hitobito wo
Shigureyo yado wa
Samuku tomo

人々を しぐれよ宿は 寒くとも

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857
Hiroshige (1797–1858), Meguro Drum Bridge, 1857

Winter of 1689

If this was (as I suppose it was) written in the winter of 1689 at a poetry gathering with Bashō’s disciples and friends in Ueno, Bashō’s hometown, then I suppose the general feeling was both warm and chilly as the winter sleet made even the inn where they had gathered cold. The timing of the gathering was the culmination of Basho’s celebrated Journey to the North. It was not a journey that Matsuo Bashō believed that he would survive, and no doubt the friends at the gathering were eager to hear the details.

So  much so that the sleet and the cold sharpened the tales that Bashō told.

Thoughts on English translation

Shigure 時雨 (しぐれ) may mean a driving rain, sleet. There is a thorough discussion on the World Kigo Database. The addition of the suffix yo is a nuanced “I say” or “you know”. The sleet, as you know, is so cold even the inns and houses feel it too.

Samuku tomo 寒くとも becomes cold, is freezing.

One is tempted to interpolate at this point. Shigure might also mean to figuratively shed tears at the coming together of the friends at the inn after Basho’s long journey to the north. One is also tempted to think of the symbolism of the quick winter rains as a metaphor for Thomas Hobbes’ (1588 – 1679) expression that life is “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Autumn’s End – aki no kure

Like a crow landed
on a withered branch
autumn ends

a withered branch
a perched crow
autumn ends

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

枯朶に   烏 のとまりけり   秋の暮

crow on a withered branch basho

Autumn of 1680*

At least six of Matsuo Bashō’s haiku contain the phrase aki no kure. And of those that can be dated, they bear a date that falls within the last 10 days of the 9th lunar month (thus, the end of autumn). These haiku are thus a contemporaneous accounting of the poet’s feelings at that time of year.

This well-known haiku was written in the autumn of 1680. Bashō had left Edo and just moved to Fukagawa on the east bank of the Sumida River, to escape the city’s din and the bright lights of Nihonbashi, the theater district. Basho is now 36 years old and has 14 years of life before his death.

In Asian countries, there is a festival celebrated on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month. As the number nine in Japan is yang, this is double yang, thus, an inauspicious date. In Japan, the festival is known as Chōyō or as the Chrysanthemum Festival. The festival wishes for a long life and observed by drinking chrysanthemum sake.

Matsuo Bashō’s haiku adds a dose of reality to the frivolity.

Notes on translation

kare eda ni may mean both a withered branch or a leafless branch. The haiku’s imagery is similar to  William Butler Yeats’ “tattered coat upon a stick”.

Karasu no tomarikeri, Basho’s crow karasu has come to rest for the moment.

Aki no kure, a familiar kigo phrase signifying the end of autumn, and winter’s approach.

Sources

As this is one of Basho’s oft repeated haiku there are many sources and interpretations.

A Crow on a Bare Branch by Elin Sütiste, a scholarly comparison of translations.

A Crow on a Withered Branch, my own prior post on the same haiku.

*Another source dates the haiku to the spring of 1681.

Compare

Tang dynasty Chinese poet, Zhang Ji, Mooring at Night by Maple Bridge

The moon sets, crows weep, and frost fills the sky.
In the maple trees by the riverside, the lights of a fishing boat, a troubled sleep.
At Gusu city, Hanshan Temple

William Shakespeare’s description of Autumn in Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Kawanabe_Kyosai_Crow-bkg

A crow on a withered branch

On a withered branch
A crow is perched
An autumn evening

枯朶に  烏のとまりけり  秋の暮

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

Kawanabe Kyōsa Crow on a snowy plum branch
Image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Bashō’s poetry

Written in the autumn of 1680. Matsuo Bashō was then living in Edo (Tokyo) and teaching poetry to a group of 20 disciples. In this wonderfully simple poem, a crow alights upon a withered branch, and Bashō is moved by the sight to write this haiku.

Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku
Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku

Kare eda ni

A withered branch, kare eda ni. Much is implied, little is said.

Karasu no tomarikeri

A crow, karasu, alighting on the branch, tomarikeri.

Beyond the obvious phonetic assonance of repeating “Ks” is the symbolism of a solitary crow. Normally we associate these noisy and annoysome birds with flocks.  In Japanese mythology the crow symbolizes the will of Heaven.

Gentle reader, I ask: Is Basho the crow, imposing his knowledge and will upon his disciples?

Aki no kure

The final line is aki no kure, autumn evening. This completes the harsh repetition of the K sound, and imitates the cacophonous call of the crow.

Timeline of the poem

Let us visit for a moment with Bashō in Edo. It is still autumn and the leaves are turning red and gold. Winter is about to come.

Perhaps we can imagine Matsuo Bashō sitting on a log in one of the many gardens of Edo surrounded by his student disciples. He is dressed in black, or they are. It is a cool autumn evening and the leaves are gathering at their feet. The students wait in anticipation of what the master is going to say.

Bashō’s poetry was developing its simple and natural style. The point of view in many of Bashō’s haiku is that life (the human condition) is best described as a metaphor. Bashō died at the early age of 50. Perhaps at the age of 36 when this haiku was written he was feeling both the effects of age and the anticipation of death.

Rhyme, rhythm, and assonance

For those who focus more on rhyme, we could translate as follows: “On a withered bough a crow is sitting now.” It is not a choice I like. Better yet, On a cracked and broken branch sits a crow. Some may think of Edgar Allen Poe’s the raven gently tapping… Others may call to mind Yeats line, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick…”.

The Golden Hall

The summer rain has spared the Golden Hall

五月雨の 降のこしてや 光堂

Samidare no/ Furinokosite ya/ Hikari-do

Matsuo Basho visited Hiraizumi on June 29, 1689 in the midst of Japan’s rainy season (五月雨の, samidare no, literally the rainy season of the fifth month). There he composed his famous haiku on the Fukiwara clan. “The summer’s grass / Is all that’s left / Of ancient warrior’s dreams.” After which he visited the Golden Hall where the four Fujiwara leaders are entombed.

golden hall hiraizumi

Chusonji Temple in the town of Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture sits atop Mount Kanzan. It is the oldest of the Hiraizumi sites, base of the northern branch of the Fujiwara clan. Its Konjikido (Hikari-do) or “Golden Hall” is a mausoleum containing the remains of all four leaders of the Fujiwara clan, which fell at the end of the 12th century. Kiyohira, the founder, Motohira, Hidehira, and Yasuhira, the last leader, are enshrined.

The first in a line of Fujiwara lords, Kiyohira lost his wife, father and one child to war. The inhumanity he witnessed drove him to create a domain resembling the pure land, a world driven by the higher principals of Buddhism. His vision flourished for a century.

The Golden Hall is encased in a protective glass enclosure. Its ornate structure is decorated with gold leaf and mother-of-pearl. Unbelievably, the Konjiki-dō used to sit outdoors in the open air, but by Basho’s time it was enclosed.

Sora later recounts in his diary that he and Basho could not find anyone to open the doors to the Golden Hall and left without seeing the Golden Hall.

What do my neighbors do?

Autumn deepens, next door, what does my neighbor do?

秋深き / 隣は何を / する人ぞ

aki fukaki / tonari wa nani wo / suru hito zo

Matsuo Basho on the 26th day of the Ninth Month, 1694

Basho was now 51 years old. In the summer of 1694, he left Edo (Tokyo), and after stops in Ueno, his place of birth, and Kyoto, he went to Osaka where he stayed at a country inn. Here he became ill. He was well enough earlier to visit the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine (住吉大社), but by evening decided against attending a poetry gathering at a disciple’s house and sent this poem.

He died a few weeks later on the twelfth day of the tenth month.

Autumn deepens, the man next door, what does he do for a living?

Zen, which aims at the perfection of the person-hood, must acknowledge the impossibility of knowing someone else. Still, one is curious about others and what they do. Gentle reader, I am curious about you. Are you curious about me?

cropped-basho.jpg

Station 24 – Dewagoe

Fleas and lice,
A horse pissing
Close to my pillow.

蚤虱  馬の尿する  枕もと

nomi shirami/ uma no shito suru/ makura moto  

It is now 330 years since Matuso Basho and his companion Saro left on their journey north. They departed on May 16, 1689 and the two now find themselves close to the northernmost end of their journey, having just left Hiraizumi.

From Iwate to Shitomae

Leaving Hiraizumi and the Fujiwara clan behind, Basho and Saro proceeded some 50 miles north to Iwate, then west to Shitomae (尿前) where they stayed for three days.

The nights proved fitful, much like the stay at Iizuka where the fleas and mosquitoes were relentless and sleep impossible. To this torture, add the stench of a urinating horse. Originally, Basho had intended to go further north to Nanbu (南部町) in Yamanashi Prefecture where the Nanbu clan (南部氏 Nanbu-shi) ruled most of northeastern Honshū for over 700 years. Rain and difficulties would change his mind.

The journey towards the west and Shitomae took them towards Dewa Province and the western coast of Japan. The route would be treacherous. On the road to Dewa, Basho and Sora had to cross Kofukazawa River by climbing down a steep gorge through hairpin turns. In summer, when Matsuo Basho and Sora crossed the river they had to negotiate six treacherous bends to climb down and up the rocky gorge.

Basho explains:

Station 24 – Dewagoe

“Turning away from the high road leading to Nambu (Nanbu) Province, I came to the village of Iwate, where I stopped overnight. The next day I looked at the Cape of Oguro and the tiny island of Mizu, both in a river, and arrived by way of Naruko hot springs at the barrier-gate of Shitomae (Shitomae no seki 尿前の関) which blocked the entrance to the province of Dewa. The gate-keepers were extremely suspicious, for very few travelers dared to pass this difficult road under normal circumstances. I was admitted after  a long wait, and darkness overtook me while I was climbing a huge hill. I put up at a gate-keeper’s house which I was very lucky to find in such a lonely place. A storm came upon us and I was held up for three days.

Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in a bed,
A horse constantly pissing
Close to my pillow.

According to the gate-keeper there was a huge body of mountains obstructing my way to the province of Dewa, and the road was terribly uncertain. So I decided to hire a guide. The gate-keeper was kind enough to find me a young man of tremendous physique, who walked in front of me with a curved sword strapped to his waist and a stick of oak gripped firmly in his hand. I myself followed him, afraid of what might happen on the way. What the gate-keeper had told me turned out to be true. The mountains were so thickly covered with foliage and the air underneath was so hushed that I felt as if I were groping my way in the dead of night. There was not even the cry of a single bird to be heard, and the wind seemed to breathe out black soot through every rift in the hanging clouds. I pushed my way through thick undergrowth of bamboo, crossing many streams and stumbling over many rocks, till at last I arrived at the village of Mogami after much shedding of cold sweat. My guide congratulated me by saying that I was indeed fortunate to have crossed the mountains in safety, for accidents of some sort had always happened on his past trips. I thanked him sincerely and parted from him. However, fear lingered in my mind some time after that.”

Written on the 17th day of the 5th lunar month at Shitomae, which literally means “before the urine” or vulgarly, “in front of pissing”. Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, 15/11/2012.

The Road North

horse-urinating

The Narrow Road to the North Prologue

matsuo basho

matsuo basho

Station 1 – Prologue

Days and months are eternity’s travelers. As are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the land, finally succumbing to the weight of years, spend each minute of their lives traveling. There are also a great number of the ancients who died on the road (including Chinese Tang poets Li Bai and Du Fu and Japanese poets Saigyo and Sogi). For a long time, tempted by  cloud-moving winds, I myself  have felt a strong desire to wander.

It was only toward the end of last autumn that I returned from rambling trip along the coast. I barely had time to sweep the cobwebs from my humble house on the River Sumida before the New Year, but no sooner than the spring mist had begun to rise over fields that I wanted to be on the road again, in due time to cross the barrier-gate of Shirakawa . The gods seemingly possessed my soul turning it inside out and from every corner the roadside images seemed to entice me, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home.

Even as I was getting ready, mending my torn trousers, tying a new strap to my hat and applying moxa to my legs to strengthen them, I was dreaming of the full moon rising over the islands of Matsushima. Finally, I sold my house and temporarily moved to Sampu’s cottage. Upon the threshold of my old home, I wrote a linked verse of eight lines and hung it on a wooden pillar.

The starting piece:
Behind this door
Now buried in deep grass
A different generation will celebrate
The Festival of Dolls.

The Narrow Road to the North

Joined by his traveling companion Kawai Sora (河合曾良), Matsuo Bashō left his home in Edo (Tokyo) in the spring of 1689 for a journey to the north and west coast of Japan. The journey took approximately five months, with Bashō and Sora traveling on foot about ten miles a day.

There were some 40 stations and stops on his journey including: the Tokugawa shrine at Nikkō, Kurobane in the province of Nasu, a Zen temple called Unganji, the Shirakawa barrier, on towards Sukagawa crossing the River Abukuma, through the famous hills of Asaka, through the castle towns of Abumizuri and Shiroishi, arriving at the province of Kasajima, crossing the River Natori and entering the city of Sendai, stopping at the River Noda no Tamagawa and the so-called Rock in the Offing, at the pine woods called Sue no Matsuyama, then to the islands of Matsushima, to Hiraizumi where the glory of three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of empty dream, then down the west coast of Japan to Sakata, Kisakata, and Etchū.

He and Sora parted ways at Yamanaka, but at Ōgaki he met a few of his other disciples before departing alone to the Grand Shrine of Ise near Kyoto, where the account ends.

After his journey end, Bashō spent five years editing the work before publishing it.

The Work in Full

View the Matsuo Basho Archives

 

The Chrysanthemum – 菊の花

mass of white chrysanthemums

Drinking his morning tea calms the monk – Chrysanthemum

朝茶飲む 僧静かなり 菊の花

Asa cha nomu / sō shizukanari / kiku no hana

mass of white chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemum

Matsuo Bashō (松尾 金作), Japan’s most famous poet of the Edo period, made the chrysanthemum the subject of several haiku. In Japanese the flower is called Kiku-no-hana, literally blossom of the chrysanthemum, or Kiku for short.

As early as the 5th century, it was imported from China into Japan by Buddhist monks, originally as medicine then becoming an object of beauty and admiration. Japanese royalty came to love the flower because they believed it had the power to prolong life. In 1183, the sixteen petal chrysanthemum became the imperial symbol. In November Chrysanthemum Festivals across Japan celebrate the many varieties of the late blooming flower.

As medicine, chrysanthemums are used to treat chest pains and high blood pressure, as well as fevers, colds, headaches, and dizziness.

The delicate petals are brewed into tea, which in our case calms the nervous monk in the morning.

Gazing at morning glories eating breakfast – Basho

hiroshige, 1866 morning glories

I am one
Who eats his breakfast
Gazing at morning glories

朝顔に
我は飯食ふ
男かな

asagao ni / ware wa meshi kû / otoko kana

hiroshige, 1866 morning glories
hiroshige, 1866 detail

Being Matsuo Bashō

Takarai Kikaku (宝井其角, 1661–1707) was one among the most accomplished disciples of Matsuo Bashō. One day, Kikaku composed a haiku, “by the grassy gate, a firefly eats nettles – that is what I am”.

A firefly lights up the night. Basho thought about this and concluded. I am a serious kind, like the asagao (morning glories), I open by day and wither at night. Each to his own. Thus, he composed this intentionally plain haiku.

Both haikus are clever reworkings of the Japanese proverb – “Some worms eat nettles”: Tade kuu mushi, or “every worm to his taste, some eat nettles”. Figuratively, each to his own, or there is no accounting for taste.

蓼食う虫も好き好き
tade kuu mushi sukizuki

Notes on translation

Basho’s play on words, meshi kû, and the proverb’s, kuu mushi. The Japanese character mushi is broadly speaking a bug or insect. My guess is that the proverb refers to nettle eating caterpillars.

In line with Kikaku’s haiku, one could and possibly should translate as,

Watching morning glories, eating rice cakes – that is who I am

朝顔に asago ni, “gazing” at morning glories is a poetic choice, Basho could also have been “sitting”, “watching” or simply being “surrounded by” the flower. It is a Zen thing – to be or do.

Who are you?